Crème Brûlée: More than 50 Decadent Recipes
By Dominique and Cindy Duby
Published by Whitecap 2008, softcover, $19.95;  128 pages

THE PARTICULARS
Who needs this book? Dessert lovers will drool at the fabulous variations of what translates literally from the French as “burnt cream,” actually a rich, eggy custard topped with caramelized sugar. Crème brûlée is the ultimate dessert: cool and sophisticated as a well-dressed Parisian, a velvet glove of flavour and texture. You just feel so worldly eating this stuff.

Skilled or novice? Fresh eggs are the basis for most of the custards and this can be tricky for a  novice. But there are plenty of tips on how to successfully make such a custard from scratch. Just read through the section called Crème Brûlée 101. There’s also a Chapter at the back on how to design your own brûlée by combining favourite flavours, complete with charts on how much of your ingredient to add, plus a recipe for the classic basic brulee.

Must-have equipment: Although an oven broiler can do the job, a small culinary blowtorch allows you to make a perfect caramelized sugar topping more easily for your creamy masterpiece. You’ll also need heatproof ramekins or small bowls.

Downsides? It’s hard to find fault with White Chocolate and Green Tea Brûlée, or Apricot Saffron Brûlée or Carrot, Cardamom and Mango Brûlée. But a sous vide (only professional chefs are set up to use this method) brûlée and a brûlée ice cream made with dry ice (Kids! Don’t try this at home!) are just a little over the top. And adding a few recipes for savoury brûlées that are essentially crustless quiches with crumb and cheese toppings may be stretching the topic a little. But these are small quibbles. Bottom line: This is a wonderful book for all puddin’ heads.

THE SCOOP
Ever since my first bite some years ago of their Wild Sweets chocolates, I have been a big fan of  Cindy and Dominique Duby, master chocolatiers who conduct their wizardry from Richmond premises that are laboratory, kitchen and headquarters for their hand-made products. There, they constantly push the envelope on flavours and textures, experimenting with new combinations and methods and coming up with such ravishingly delicious results that they are international food celebrities, lauded by the likes of Chicago super-chef Charlie Trotter, and receiving coverage for their yummy creations on CNN, CBS and Dailycandy.com.

This is their third, and probably for home cooks, most accessible book. And I have to admit that the Morels and Asparagus with Stilton Brûlée, topped with crispy pancetta, does get the juices flowing, even if it is more quiche than custard. But for now, we’ll focus on the dessert end of things. Here’s a recipe from the book.

RHUBARB MARSHMALLOW BRÛLÉE
Rhubarb, a member of the buckwheat family, is widely available right now, though our local strawberries —  the imports are just not in the same league — won’t be ready for another month or so.

Rhubarb-Strawberry Compote
2 tbsps. granulated sugar
½ tsp. powdered pectin
2/3 cup rhubarb juice, made in a juicer with fresh or frozen rhubarb
1 tbsp. lemon juice
8 medium strawberries, hulled and quartered

Custard
1 cup whole milk
4 tbsps. granulated sugar, divided
3 tbsps. + 2 tsps. custard powder (like Bird’s) or cornstarch
1 large egg
¼ tsp. cinnamon

Garnish
12 large marshmallows, cut in half
Caramel nuts made with almonds (recipe follows)

For the compote, combine sugar and pectin in a small saucepan. Stir in rhubarb and lemon juice and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook stirring constantly, until it is reduced by half. Remove from heat and let cool at room temperature, then refrigerate for at least 3 hours (overnight is best). Just before serving, gently fold in strawberries.

For the custard, scald milk and 2 tbsps. of the sugar in a medium heavy saucepan by heating over medium heat until tiny bubbles appear around the edge and milk is steaming. Remove from heat.

Whisk the remaining 2 tbsps. sugar, custard powder or cornstarch, egg, and cinnamon in medium bowl until well combined. Whisking constantly, slowly add hot milk mixture. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve back into the saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly to prevent scorching, until custard thickens and forms bubbles. Remove from heat. Divide mixture evenly among 4 ramekins.

Place marshmallows over warm custard. Spoon Rhubarb-Strawberry compote in between marshmallows, dividing evenly. Ignite blowtorch and caramelize marshmallows until golden brown, moving the torch constantly so marshmallows don’t burn. Top each custard with some Caramel Almonds.

Serves 4.

Caramel Nuts
1/3 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
3.6 oz. (100g) unsalted nuts, such as almonds, pecans, pistachios or walnuts
Preheat oven to 350F.

Bring sugar, water and nuts to a boil in small saucepan over high heat. Boil for 2 minutes, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve discarding liquid.

Spread nuts on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper and bake until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes. Let cool completely, then store in an airtight container.

From Crème Brûlée

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Puff: 50 Flaky, Crunchy, Delicious Appetizers, Entrees and Desserts Made with Puff Pastry
By Martha Holmberg
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast, 2008; soft cover $21.95; 144 pages

The word “flaky” is often used to describe behaviour or bearing that is bizarre or eccentric. But there’s nothing bizarre about biting into something that crunches lightly but spectacularly, then melts into a buttery caress of flavour.

That’s the stuff of perfect puff pastry, something Martha Holmberg, the food editor for the Oregonian in Portland, describes as a cook’s “secret weapon”. Yes, homey pie crusts, delicate pate brisees and cookie- crumb bases are a wonderful way to enclose a savoury quiche, enrobe fresh fruit, or give a sturdy base to a rich cheesecake. But all bow down before the queenly bite of the sensuous puff.

Puff pastry isn’t as easy to make as any of the above, so Holmberg devotes 10 fully illustrated pages to taking you through the entire process. She even gives two versions: the classic French butter and flour mixture (known as pate feuilletee) that, by the time you master it, will give you 2,187 layers of flakiness (Holmberg says she did the math); and something called rough puff pastry (demi-feuilletee), which is much easier to make and works just fine for quiches, galettes, turnovers and potpies.

Not up to rolling butter so thin, it could probably cover a football field? There’s no shame in buying ready-made puff pastry, Holmberg says, and the challenge of making your own is just that. You feel you’ve accomplished something, but when you have other things you’d rather do, go out and buy a slab of frozen puff pastry and try some of her recipes. The key to using puff pastry successfully, particularly   store-bought, is to make sure it’s completely thawed by putting it in the fridge overnight before rolling it out, she says.

Once you have the finished product — whether home-made or store-bought — puff pastry is a cinch to work with, says Holmberg. “It’s surprisingly not that delicate, it isn’t sticky and you can refreeze the scraps.”

Imagine a tray of appetizers that includes melt-in-your-mouth spicy parmesan puffs, spiced samosa puffs with cilantro-chile dipping sauce and caramelized onion, crisp bacon and roquefort tarts. Or go for an irresistible main course such as swiss chard and goat cheese tart, or melted leek tart with fennel sausage and goat cheese, or wild salmon in pastry with savoury mushroom stuffing and lemon-caper beurre blanc. Even pizza can be taken to new heights with a flaky rough puff crust.

Then, of course, there’s the ultimate puff indulgence: dessert. Holmberg has recipes for brown sugar and brandy pear turnovers, honey-spice walnut tart, profiteroles with coffee cream, rich chocolate-espresso sauce and toasted almonds, sugar-crunch palmiers and roasted pineapple and ginger napoleons with salted caramel sauce.

Enough talking. Try a bite of the following.

Spiced Samosa Puffs with Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce

1 ½ lbs.Yukon gold or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
3 tbsps. olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion (about 1 medium onion)
Kosher salt
2 to 4 tbsps. minced fresh chile, such as jalapeno
2 tbsps. minced fresh ginger (from one 2-inch piece)
1 tbsp. garam masala
2 tbsps. unsalted butter
1 cup fresh or frozen peas (no need to thaw)
Juice of half a lime or lemon, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 sheets (about 9 oz. each) frozen puff pastry, thawed
Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce (optional; recipe follows)

Place potatoes in pot of generously salted water, bring to a boil and cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. Scoop out  about a cup of the potato water, then drain potatoes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat; add onion, season with salt and cook until very soft and slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add chile, cook for another minute, then add ginger and garam masala and cook until mixture is fragrant, another minute or so.

Dump the drained potatoes into the pan along with the butter. With a rubber spatula, fold to blend (it’s fine if the potatoes get a bit mushy), adding enough of the reserved potato water to make the mixture a bit creamy, then add peas and lime juice. Fold until well blended. Taste and season generously with more salt and some pepper. Let cool slightly, then fold in cilantro.

Heat oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats (you’ll probably need to bake these in batches if baking all 36 in one session).

On a lightly floured counter, roll a sheet of pastry into a 14-inch square. Cut it into thirds lengthwise and thirds crosswise to make 9 squares. Roll one square to enlarge it to about 5 by 5 inches and cut in half to make two triangles. With a triangle in front of you at a right angle, spoon about 1 tbsp. onto the pastry just to the lower right of centre. Moisten the edges of pastry with water. Bring the top corner to the bottom corner to create a smaller triangle and pinch all around to seal tightly. Repeat with remaining squares and the second sheet of pastry.

Arrange samosas on the baking sheets and bake until lightly puffed and rich golden brown, 18-20 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes on a rack, then serve hot, with or without Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce. Makes 36.

Make Ahead Note: You can make samosas and keep them in the fridge for one day before baking, or freeze the unbaked samosas for up to one month. Bake them directly from the freezer and add a few more minutes to the cooking time.

Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce

1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 tbsp. minced onion or shallot
½ tsp. minced fresh ginger
1 to 2 jalapenos, cored, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
2 cups lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves
Put everything in a food processor and process until creamy. Taste and adjust seasoning. Chill for at least 30 minutes to let flavors blend. Make about 1 cup.
From Puff